HILLSBOROUGH — The walls of Jim Woodall’s Hillsborough office offer a quick glimpse of his ties to UNC-Chapel Hill – from the framed sports memorabilia to the diplomas he received as a student there.
That sentimentalism for his alma mater has not stopped the 53-year-old Orange County district attorney from pursuing criminal cases with the potential to add embarrassment to a university mired in athletic and academic scandals.
Woodall brought charges against a small-time sports agent and four of his “runners,” or go-betweens, accusing them of funneling illegal benefits to three former UNC football players. One of those go-betweens was Jennifer Wiley Thompson, a former tutor singled out by the NCAA for providing impermissible academic help for football players.
Woodall is pursuing a fraud case against Julius Nyang’oro, the former African studies chairman accused of obtaining $12,000 for classes he did not teach or require students to attend.
And his work investigating Nyang’oro and Deborah Crowder, former manager of the African studies department, led to the new independent investigation into the academic scandal at UNC announced Friday by Chancellor Carol Folt and UNC system president Tom Ross.
Woodall, the top prosecutor for the judicial district that includes Orange and Chatham counties since 2005, is quick to acknowledge the tug he feels in some of the cases.
“The fact that this involved UNC, it didn’t cause me any difficulty going to the grand jury,” Woodall said in a recent interview. “Where it had an effect was, I was just a little generally upset that this involved a university that I attended and I loved.”
Woodall has received criticism and praise as the criminal probes and cases get national attention. Some have described him as an aggressive prosecutor. Others have characterized him as an overly cautious politician, too timid to go after the largest employer in a district where he has to win votes to keep office.
Woodall, a Democrat, is seeking re-election in November. No candidate has emerged to challenge the two-term incumbent; the period to file a candidacy ends Feb. 28.
Woodall said this week that he tries not to let political concerns become an obstacle to his work.
“There’s a little bit of pressure only in that people have expressed opinions,” Woodall said. “I don’t want to say: ‘I don’t care.’ I do care what people say and think because people are smart. But I don’t let that decide what I do. I look at the law and the evidence and say: ‘Do we have a case? Or do we not have a case?’ ”
‘Linda from Labor’
Those who have worked with Woodall during the 24 years he has been a prosecutor in Orange and Chatham describe him as an affable straight-shooter who has yet to tire of a good legal challenge. He can unravel complex law in simple language and still relishes being in a courtroom in front of a judge and jury.
“He’s a good trial lawyer,” said Superior Court Judge Carl Fox, the previous Orange-Chatham district attorney who hired Woodall as his longtime office sidekick.
The two met when both were working at UNC Hospitals. Fox was a volunteer and Woodall worked as an emergency-room clerk, checking in patients to help pay his law school bills.
The hospital proved to be a place where Woodall formed several lasting relationships that shaped his adulthood. His wife, Linda, was a nurse who worked several floors above the emergency room. For the first year, Woodall only knew her as an intriguing voice on the other end of the phone line he often called to check women into the maternity ward.
“I knew her as ‘Linda from Labor and Delivery,’ ” he said.
A marriage bloomed from beyond the phone receivers. The Woodalls have a daughter, Handley, 26, who lives in Minnesota.
Woodall grew up in Princeton, a small Johnston County town almost midway between Smithfield and Goldsboro.
His mom was a teacher’s aide for 30 plus years in the public schools, and his father was a turbine mechanic at CP&L for several decades before working as an auto mechanic at a dealership owned by a relative.
An avid athlete in his youth, Woodall participated in whatever sport was in season until a bad hit on the high school football field injured his back and sidelined his competitive aspirations.
His mother had encouraged him in junior high school to think about a career in law, given his ease with public speaking and a knack for writing. By then he had given much thought to one of Johnston County’s high-profile murder cases – a capital case that his family talked about at great length.
In 1948, 12 years before Woodall was born, one of his aunts was shot to death by her husband.
A family capital case
Jimmy Creech, as Woodall tells the family story with a sparkle in his glacier-blue eyes, was the son of a prominent Johnston County tobacco farmer who “could be the nicest guy in the world unless he had been drinking.”
One July day in 1948, Creech went to find his wife after a drinking spree, angered that she had left him and hoping to rekindle the relationship with an offering of peaches.
Woodall’s aunt, Mattie Creech, a petite but steely woman, would have none of it. She tried to block her husband from coming inside the house, pushing the door closed and cowering behind it.
Creech fired his 12-gauge, double-barreled shotgun into the door, then broke the door down and fired a second blast into her head.
Despite requests from high-profile lawyers for delays, Creech was tried a month later. A jury rejected his defense that he fired under “diminished capacity,” that he was too confused and too inebriated when he fired the shots. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.
Creech’s defense team argued that he had been railroaded by a jury jealous of his wealth. But Creech was executed in the gas chamber.
One of Woodall’s uncles watched the execution, but in Johnston County, a conspiracy tale soon surfaced questioning whether Creech had really been executed. At Creech’s funeral, Woodall said, one of the pallbearers noted a lightness to the casket. Creech had been a man of large stature and the pallbearer wondered how a coffin of that size could encase the body.
That comment fueled the theories that Creech’s well-connected family had some how spirited him out of the gas chamber before the execution and someone else had been killed instead.
“I started hearing about that from the time I was a little kid,” Woodall said. “I think I started thinking about the death penalty when I was in about the sixth grade.”
A career prosecutor
In Orange County, where no death penalty has been returned during Woodall’s stint as a prosecutor, the district attorney held capital punishment out as an option in the case of one of the men convicted of murdering Eve Carson, the UNC-Chapel Hill student body president.
That case, which resulted in two Durham men receiving life sentences for robbing and murdering Carson, was difficult for Woodall, whose daughter was about the same age as the admired UNC student leader.
Woodall has not always been a prosecutor. He worked as a criminal defense lawyer in Goldsboro for three years with Phil Baddour, the former state legislator, brother of former UNC athletics director Dick Baddour and uncle of Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour.
In 1988, he returned to Chapel Hill and worked briefly in the food business. He helped a friend run a restaurant and wholesale store famous for smoked bluefish.
Then Woodall was invited to a party in Carrboro in 1990, and it was there that Fox told him about a job opening in the district attorney’s office. More than two decades later, he remains.
“I always thought I wanted to be a career prosecutor,” Woodall said.
Woodall said he aggressively prosecutes violent crimes, but also is proud of the programs through which minor substance-abuse and nuisance cases don’t necessarily result in criminal convictions.
“People who come in with little or no record, our default position is we’ll see if there’s a possibility to get them into a deferral program,” Woodall said.
In the coming months, Woodall has a caseload that is likely to draw interest from prosecutors across the nation.
The cases he brought using the Uniform Athletes Agents Act could help determine whether the law has any teeth. The criminal allegations come in a college sports era in which there has been increasing concerns about improper contact between agents and athletes.
The Nyang’oro case could open a wider window into the relationships between academic advisers for athletes and some of the academic departments at a Division I school.
Woodall plans to offer information from a long-running SBI investigation to Kenneth L. Wainstein, a 19-year veteran of the U.S. Justice Department and the independent counsel selected Friday to conduct the independent probe into academic irregularities at UNC.
“It’s such an important issue for the state,” Woodall said. “It’s essential for the people to have confidence in the university and university administration that they make the report public and let people know about any corrective actions they take.”